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Tough year for ‘battle-weary’ Catholics

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The Legislative Council chamber of the Parliament of New South Wales. Photo: Coekon, CC BY-SA 4.0
The Legislative Council chamber of the Parliament of New South Wales. Photo: Coekon, CC BY-SA 4.0

As Australia’s politicians prepared to close up shop and head off for their summer holidays, there were a number of developments of note to people of faith including a delay of controversial conversion laws in New South Wales until next year.

The NSW Government announced it would not table its bill seeking to ban so-called conversion practices before the end of the year as planned, with Premier Chris Minns saying more time and consultation is needed to “get this right.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a number of faith leaders had written to the premier asking that the government not rush the laws through, including Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP.

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“Rushing legislation as sensitive as this will likely result in uncertainty and unintended consequences, especially for children experiencing gender dysphoria and their parents and carers,” the archbishop wrote.

Monica Doumit, director of public affairs and engagement for the Archdiocese of Sydney, said the pause is welcome as the proposals put forward to date are “anti-faith, anti-freedom and child endangering”.

Doumit is also a member of the state’s new Faith Affairs Council whose first meeting was brought forward to 29 November in response to escalating tensions between Palestinian supporters and the Jewish community in Sydney.

Established in September, the council also includes representatives of Judaism, Islam, and the Hindu community and is meant to advise the government on religious communities’ concerns and main priorities.

On 31 December a long-awaited report is finally due from the Australian Law Reform Commission’s schools inquiry, after the deadline was pushed back from April.

The inquiry, announced last November, is looking at religious exemptions to sex discrimination legislation and Archbishop Fisher led a nation-wide protest against its consultation paper, which indicated the commission would recommend severe limits on the ability of faith-based schools to prioritise the employment of members of their own faith.

The NSW Law Reform Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, which faith-based organisations rely on to ensure they can preference employees who belong to or will uphold the same faith.

But changes to the state’s anti-discrimination laws to ban vilification on the grounds of race, homosexuality, transgender status, and HIV/AIDS status came into effect on 13 November.

The premier said abusing people on religious grounds “threatens the thriving, tolerant, multi-religious and multi-ethnic heart of NSW.”

Back to the national level, there are fears that proposed federal misinformation laws may lead to the censoring of religious content online, but this month Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said the draft bill will be revised to address free speech concerns.

The draft bill gives the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) a range of powers to ensure social media companies combat misinformation and disinformation on their platforms.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is concerned that the bill defines “harmful” misinformation too vaguely and could capture Catholic teaching on important issues such as euthanasia and sexuality.

“There are people who will sometimes incorrectly claim that the teachings of the Catholic Church are ‘hateful’ or ‘harmful’. The conference is concerned that the bill could be used to portray the church’s communication of its teachings as a form of public misinformation,” their submission on the bill said.

In August the Australian Government decided not to introduce compulsory age verification for online pornography, citing recommendations by the eSafety Commissioner.

The decision provoked outrage from women’s and children’s advocates.

“In rejecting an age verification pilot, the Federal Government put the vested interests of the predatory global porn industry ahead of the wellbeing of children,” said Collective Shout director Melinda Tankard Reist.

But on 27 November Shadow Communications Minister David Coleman introduced a private member’s bill into parliament seeking to amend the Online Safety Act to legislate for a trial scheme next year.

“If Catholics are feeling a bit battle-weary at the end of the year it’s not your imagination,” said Doumit.

“A lot has happened for people of faith and it means at the beginning of next year we will have the results of these battles for religious freedom.

“So there will be a lot to do next year, depending on how they play out.”

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